About this Recording
8.660337 - RAVEL, M.: Heure espagnole (L') [Opera] / Don Quichotte à Dulcinée (Lombardo, Druet, Antoun, Le Roux, Lyon National Orchestra, Slatkin)
English  French 

Maurice Ravel (1875–1937)
L’Heure espagnole (1907–09)

 

Ravel’s stage works—in the realm of both opera and ballet—represent gloriously original and beautiful contributions to the theatrical repertory. They are as subtle and expressively poised as could be imagined, more so perhaps than many more obviously popular works for the theatre. Their great subtlety and unusual subject matter are striking, and both the operas are cast in just a single act, thus needing to be intelligently programmed with other works (or each other…) so as to provide a complete evening’s performance in the theatre—facts which taken together might well have placed them in the remoter margins of the operatic repertory. Yet all of Ravel’s main stage works are well known and regularly performed, and lead an existence firmly in the public eye, even if slightly towards the fringes of the regular dramatic corpus.

As I have suggested, they really don’t conform to type. The two operas in particular show a striking and unusual originality of subject and conception that is displayed with a light and elegant touch, typical of Ravel but far removed from more emphatic and conventional operatic styles. In the case of L’Heure espagnole it is not so much the scenario in itself, as Ravel’s unusually thoughtful and refined treatment of it, that gives the piece its originality and special appeal. It has charm, comedic energy and lyric poise, a certain tautly Spanish flavour, and a magical sense of orchestral colour. Above all, it has extreme sonic refinement and clear, well defined vocal writing. Ravel’s conception and style show elegance and an obvious deftness of hand, though there is no lack of theatrical definition and expressive intensity as well.

Ravel himself said he saw the key to this opera—in purely aesthetic terms, yes, but also very much from the point of view of his listeners—as residing in his treatment of the dialogue, that is, in the delineation of the characters’ speech. By this he meant the verbal accentuation and the ‘stretching’ of the words across the musical phrases, and also the way the orchestral texture works around this skilful delineation of the text. This type of recitative-declamation in lyric form underlines the relationship of the piece to eighteenth-century comedy in general, and to the Italianising opéra-bouffe in particular.

The result of his treatment of the words is a kind of musically and poetically heightened speech, while the orchestra sustains, punctuates, weaves itself around and in and out of the dialogue like a sort of colouristic and poetic halo. It also gives the dialogue its stage rhythm—the human speech is primary, and goes directly together with the stage action, the rhythm of which is generated from the orchestra. There is an evident and obviously important truth in all this, so far as the dramatic evolution of the piece is concerned, and the way it is put across to the audience in the theatre.

But it seems also, perhaps, something of a self-effacing gesture on Ravel’s part, almost as if he were trying to hide behind the almost schematic effects of his own subtlety and skill, while at the same time trying to draw absolutely no attention to them. For we must admit that the invention and poetic beauty of his score are extraordinary, transforming and deepening the external course of the comedy without ever undermining it or making it less funny. Rather, it is the reverse—Ravel’s harmonic poetry and orchestral magic enhance the comedy by giving it a gentle human poignancy and poetic presence.

The wit, the amusement, the sense of character, all emerge from the speech, from the way the words are rhythmicised, accented and projected across the stage for each character, each in his or her way. The result is a beautifully turned conversation piece, mapped out by the characters’ physical entrances and exits, and also by their pointed and neatly economical verbal exchanges.

The vocal writing mirrors the dramatic tempo and the (deliberate) stylisation of the characters’ dialogue—and it shows Ravel’s sharpness of observation of speech patterns, both natural and theatrical. In the overall sonic picture, it is given not just harmony and textural substance but atmosphere and a kind of poetic aura by the sonorities of Ravel’s orchestra.

The libretto itself is written in a (deliberately) rather eccentric but beautifully crafted style, with a clever stylisation and an inherently subtle and amusing approach to rhythm, rhyme and syllable count. Such features are clearly audible, and amusing, through Ravel’s clear delineation and projection of the text. In a letter written on 17 May 1911, two days before the première therefore, Ravel confided: ‘What I’ve tried to do is admittedly rather ambitious: [nothing less than] to breathe new life into the Italian opera buffa: following only the [guiding] principle… [of good declamation, I have observed the fact that] the French language, like any other, has its own distinctive accents and pitch inflections.’

L’Heure espagnole also forms part of a larger group of Spanish-tinged works that appeared all along the course of Ravel’s career. The necessary Spanish colouring moreover provided him with a very good reason for his virtuosic use of the full colouristic and articulatory resources of the modern orchestra, deployed in the modern manner, which in his view was perfectly attuned to comedy—well suited, that is, to underlining, intensifying and at times exaggerating a range of comic effects.

What, then, is this opera overall? How can we best think of it as a highly individual piece, not merely as a type? And how might we describe its mixture of elegantly turned farce and poetic evocation if we had to sum it up? On one level, the opera is a delightful situation comedy, a kind of gentle and amusing farce. Concepción looks forward to her assignation with the poet Gonzalve but is thwarted, getting both more and less than she had bargained for. As the synopsis shows, the working out of this comic situation provides the axis and resources of the plot. On another level, the orchestral invention has an evocative charm and power that together create a strong poetic atmosphere and (as I have suggested) a sense of poetic presence that cannot be discounted. The orchestra weaves its own poetry and gives the comic characters a depth and atmosphere they would otherwise lack.

Ravel’s two operas (the second being L’Enfant et les sortilèges, composed in 1925 [Naxos 8.660336]) and his Diaghilev ballet Daphnis et Chloé (1912) inhabit very different narrative and atmospheric worlds, and Ravel skilfully finds a distinctive voice—that is, a vivid and effective musical idiom—for each of them. L’Heure espagnole in particular has a comic verve that is leavened and deepened by fleeting moments of poetry, conjured up to a large extent in and through the orchestra. This added dimension beautifully counterbalances and gently enriches the stylised comedy and the opera buffa background, which we would surely find too conventional and uninvolving, too merely farcical, without this sense of poetic renewal in sound and human feeling.

Synopsis

The scene is set in a clockmaker’s shop in eighteenth-century Spain. It is Thursday morning, the day of the week when Torquemada, master clockmaker of Toledo, must leave his premises and go out and about on his rounds, attending to the clocks of the municipality. We meet the clocks in his shop first of all, since they are directly evoked in the short orchestral prelude [1]—providing atmosphere, yes, but also acting as a symbol of order and measure which during the course of the piece will be threatened by a rising tide of social and emotional chaos, in deeply comic form.

[2] We next meet Torquemada himself (character tenor), as a customer enters his shop. The amiable and obliging muleteer Ramiro (baritone) is an unexpected arrival. His large, old-fashioned watch—a treasured family heirloom—is repeatedly stopping, thereby ruining his time-keeping on his municipal postal rounds. He wishes Torquemada to repair it. This Torquemada agrees to do, but remarks that Ramiro will have to wait until he gets back from his rounds. Ramiro explains that the watch is not just of sentimental value; it had formerly belonged to his uncle the toreador, and once saved him from the bull’s horns—all this is sung with a strong sense of Spanish verve and colour, and marks out Ramiro as a modest and courteous but also vigorous man of action, coming from a strong family line.

[3] Torquemada’s wife Concepción (soprano), who has urged her husband to hurry up and be on his way, is now in a dilemma. She has planned to put his absence to good use, in arranging a morning assignation with her current lover (or at least gentleman friend), the poet Gonzalve (tenor). But Ramiro’s continuing presence is now going to get in their way. What to do? She is used to having this hour each week, on Thursdays, entirely free to pursue her acquaintance with her male friends and entertain them in whatever way she chooses—now her pleasure at that prospect of such entertainment is threatened.

[4] It looks, then, as though Ramiro’s presence will prove irksome—Ramiro himself knows he ought to offer her some light, polite conversation, but of course (poor chap…) he can’t think of anything to say. Concepción, on the other hand, decides to take advantage of this strong, practical man to carry a grandfather clock upstairs to her bedroom. He politely and readily agrees. As he goes up the staircase with his burden—of which he naturally makes light,—the voice of the poet Gonzalve (lyric tenor) is heard offstage, singing roulades. [5] These flourishes, as he enters, then flow over into a song of deliberately conventional literary and musical character. This tells us, amusingly, in advance of seeing him in action with the other characters, that Gonzalve is actually a rather humdrum figure, vain, and with frankly misplaced literary pretensions, although Ravel’s characterisation retains charm and elegance—the Ravellian form of comedy is subtle and non-aggressive, generally played for smiles not laughter. And after all, Gonzalve is meant to exert at least a semblance of charm and attraction over the (admittedly eager) clockmaker’s wife.

Concepción rapidly tries to persuade him to take quick advantage of the few moments they will now have together, undisturbed. But the vain, even narcissitic Gonzalve is intoxicated with his own poetry and the sound of his own voice, so that, before she can get him to pay attention—to her, and to the fleeting pleasures of love with her in stolen moments—the obliging Ramiro returns, his task completed. [6] Surprised by Ramiro’s evident strength and competence, Concepción quickly and capriciously changes her mind, deciding that, after all, she had in fact asked him to move the wrong clock. So then, she asks, would he be so kind as bring it back down again and carry up another one instead? Again, Ramiro is perfectly obliging. As he departs, the vain and conceited Gonzalve ‘with a scornful look’ observes that ‘Muleteers have simply no conversation’.

[7] Concepción now has to move quickly to persuade Gonzalve to get inside the clock that Ramiro will shortly carry up to her bedroom. But Gonzalve, as usual, goes on at inordinate length concerning this new adventure and what it will bring him in terms of fresh sensations and experience.

[8] Don Iñigo now enters, to a theme in suitably pompous dotted rhythms. His rotund speechifying is developing well and almost into its full stride when Ramiro returns. [9] Concepción explains the muleteer’s presence to Don Iñigo as that of a mere removal man. As if playing,—or at least conforming to—his role, on cue, Ramiro now expertly lifts the clock containing Gonzalve on to his shoulders. Concepción goes upstairs right after him, allegedly to ensure that this ever-so fragile clock has not been damaged. [10] Don Iñigo decides that his only chance of being alone with Concepción is to hide inside one of the more capacious clocks—and so he squeezes himself inside, with some difficulty, ironically accompanied in the orchestra by an elegantly turned, insouciant waltz.

[11] Ramiro descends alone. He now muses thoughtfully on the complex, unfathomable workings of both clocks and women. [12] Concepción rejoins him, distraught, because, she claims, the clock presently standing in her room is not functioning correctly, as it ought to. Ramiro goes to bring it down again. [13] Don Iñigo’s would-be cuckoo imitations fail to delight Concepción, and she pleads with him just to come out of his clock; but of course (comédie oblige…) this is easier said than done. [14] Ramiro returns, carrying the clock with Gonzalve inside, while it is now Don Iñigo’s turn, inside his clock, to be borne upstairs. [15] The still comically self-obsessed Gonzalve continues to suffer from a (to us absurd and ridiculous, though not to him) surfeit of poetic inspiration, and for this reason refuses even to quit his clock-prison. Concepción turns her back on him. She leaves the stage. [16] Now alone, the ever-resourceful Gonzalve takes the opportunity to sing, perversely, of the delights of imprisonment…

[17] It is now Ramiro who returns and sings, naïvely but with real passion, of Concepción’s charms and her feminine powers of attraction—if he were not merely a humble muleteer, he muses to himself, he would surely be a watchmaker. At this point Concepción enters once more. She has only to utter the one word ‘Monsieur!’ to him and he knows instantly what it is she is asking—to go upstairs and fetch the other clock back down once more. [18] With Gonzalve silent inside his clock onstage, Concepción now delivers an impassioned monologue against her two current lovers, almost against lovers in general and against the vexations and vicissitudes of sentimental assignations (Oh! la pitoyable aventure! ‘Oh, the lamentable adventure… !’), as the prospect of her future life stretches before her. [19] Ramiro now comes down with Don Iñigo’s clock and, yet again, offers her his services as clock-remover. This time, however, Concepción pointedly asks for his services ‘without a clock’ (sans horloge), and proceeds to follow him swiftly upstairs, seizing the apparently unlooked-for opportunity.

[20] The result? While she is inside her room with the still-obliging muleteer, both of her erstwhile lovers, Gonzalve and Don Iñigo, are installed, marooned, onstage, hidden inside their grandfather clocks and so effectively confined—indeed, rather squashed, in the case of the latter, who cannot even get out. The slimmer Gonzalve gets out easily enough, but only in order to sing… not a well turned love song to the now-absent Concepción, who is off in the playful realms of Eros with the strong, self-possessed Ramiro upstairs, but a lyrical farewell to his prosaic ‘wooden prison’. However, he gets back inside pretty quickly when the clockmaker’s return is heard.

[21] And so, with each of the two erstwhile lovers confined inside their respective clocks, Torquemada is back in his shop. Ever the alert salesman, he quickly takes advantage of what seems, somewhat fortuitously, to be Don Iñigo’s special interest in his grandfather clock to sell it to him. He furthermore persuades Gonzalve that he has just the right clock for him, as well. So Torquemada too has his reward, in a gesture of comic recompense and witty table-turning. He and Gonzalve struggle, unsuccessfully, to liberate the portly Don Iñigo. Ramiro and Concepción now come down from her room—and finally, with just a little help from Concepción, the ever-obliging Ramiro is able to perform one more useful task—in liberating poor Don Iñigo by pulling him free, with, it would seem, an absolute minimum of effort.

[22] In the final quintet, which resolves the story charmingly and humanely, the singers step outside their characters and sing a lively ensemble—the moral of which is taken from Boccaccio—to the honour (and momentary success…) of the modest muleteer:

Among all lovers, only he who is
efficient and effective succeeds.
And there always comes a moment when,
In the pursuit and stratagems of love,
The honest muleteer also gets his turn.

Don Quichotte à Dulcinée (1933)

This last of all Ravel’s compositions was initially commissioned by the celebrated film director Georg Wilhelm Pabst (1885–1967) for a new film version of the celebrated Don Quixote story by Miguel de Cervantes. In the end, four songs by Jacques Ibert were used in preference to Ravel’s three, a fact which placed some strain on their friendship and caused Ravel to pursue the idea of a lawsuit against the film’s producers. Yet Ravel’s three songs—colourful, strongly characterised, and imbued with a touching combination of martial swagger and a kind of heroic tenderness and vulnerability—have nevertheless subsequently enjoyed an enormously successful concert career in the repertoire of many of the greatest solo bass-baritones, not just in the Francophone world (the original star of the Pabst film was the famous operatic Russian bass Fyodor Chaliapin (1873–1938), showing off to great effect his pure acting skills as well as showcasing his singing; while the first singer of Ravel’s songs was the great, if today under-recognised, baritone Martial Singher (1904–1990)).

Compositional progress on the three songs had in any case been slow and somewhat painful, owing chiefly to the stresses and strains of the degenerative cerebral-neurological disease from which Ravel suffered at this time. There is, however, little or no trace of this struggle in their final musical form: they maintain Ravel’s highest standards of vocal writing, declamation, rhythmic verve and harmonic balance, and Spanish colour within a sophisticated French framework.

The little triptych of songs exists in both piano and orchestral versions, and was completed in 1933 thanks not least to practical help given by friends and assistants, since Ravel’s physical and neurological state was deteriorating progressively. The world première was given at the Châtelet Theatre (Théâtre du Châtelet) in Paris in December 1934, in the orchestral version by Ravel himself, conducted by Paul Paray. The songs use audibly Spanish rhythms and dance patterns (we hear also their characteristic metrical shifts), as was common practice in later nineteenth- and early twentieth-century French music. But the sense of the musical continuity and the individual musical gestures, in both voice and orchestra, are recognizably Ravellian. The highly selective and judicious use of dissonance and pure instrumental colour are typical in this respect—Ravel is vigorous and energetic as well as subtle in both these areas, but every effect is carefully heard and skilfully calculated, never overdone.

The three songs perhaps curiously have generic rather than poetic titles—Chanson romanesque, Chanson épique, and Chanson à boire. This if anything adds to their character and atmosphere—Don Quixote, we are made to feel, is an aristocratic Spanish eccentric, and keeps his knightly poise and sense of decorum at all times, including when he is singing, so that the love he expresses for adventure or for Dulcinea, or the joy and celebration he expresses in wine and inspiration, are shot through with dignity even as he is overcome by his emotion. These songs do all this, and preserve a balance between inwardness and extroversion. This is an intrinsic part of their touching magic for the listener, in any good performance.

Philip Weller


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